Voltaire’s proto-antinatalism

Humanist par excellence and often considered a king of enlightenment Voltaire (1694-1778) also features elements of a proto-antinatalism. One case in point is his Treatise on Tolerance where, in chapter 23, we find him saying (as opposed to d’Holbach (1723-1789, Voltaire still believed in God):

‘No longer then do I address myself to men, but to you, God of all beings, of all worlds, and of all ages; if it may be permitted weak creatures lost in immensity and imperceptible to the rest of the universe, to dare to ask something of you, you who have given everything, and whose decrees are immutable as they are eternal. Deign to look with pity on the errors attached to our nature; let not these errors prove ruinous to us. You have not given us hearts to hate ourselves with, and hands to kill one another. Grant then that we may mutually aid each other to support the burden of a painful and transitory life.

In Voltaire, humanism doesn’t celebrate the joy of existence but rather the need to support one another in order to cope with the burden of existence. As a child of his times Voltaire didn’t see that the “burden of a painful and trasitory life” is forced upon people by unenlightened parents.

Voltaire only belongs to antinatalism’s wider forecourt since he wasn’t outspoken on not passing on the burden of existence.


Is Antinatalism a Humanism?

We can speak of a humanistic attitude where people see themselves as self-creating beings. This means that people are neither products of a God nor are they simply the results of biological evolution.

Against this background, humanism holds: there is neither a religious nor a natural commission for procreation. Rather, in view of the past history, the present and the future to be expected, people must decide whether they want to have descendants or not, whether the “burden of existence” (Voltaire) is justifiable or not.

As opposed to believers, humanists assume that there are no compensating otherworldly, paradisiacal institutions (and no hellish penal colonies). Antinatalism is humanism, at least inasmuch as it takes very seriously the lack of otherworldly or rebirth-based compensation. Antinatalism is deeply humanistic because it takes seriously the burden of existence (the school and workload to be carried out by each individual, shame, betrayal, experiences of the death of the near and the dear ones, the own catastrophe of dying and much more). Pronatalists will oppose this, saying that every person has to have her own experiences and that there is always HOPE for a better future. Humanist antinatalism cannot accept this, since it rejects experimenting on people. And it has the character of experimenting, and human lottery, to bring forth new humans in the sign of “hope” that they may be spared a hard school and working life, serious illnesses, experiencing the death of the near ones and, eventually their own catastrophe of dying.

Humanism and Antinatalism

Some critics doubt the antinatalists‘ humanist vision. Many of those critics envision mankind’s future under the sign of hope. To have given up hope, in the eyes of the critics, is a moral blemish. Saying this, however, the critics are disregarding that – under the sign of hope –they are prepared to experimenting on human beings. They are prepared to experimenting on human beings inasmuch as they are in favour of propagation with uncertain outcomes. Experimenting on human beings would not deserve to be called humanist.

Horror non exsistentiae (Horror of non-existence)

Why is it so difficult for people to even discuss antinatalism? Aristotle and many others, well into the 19th century, didn’t accept the idea of a vacuum (the so called Horror vacui in Latin). Nature, according to those thinkers, abhors a vacuum. Probably many of those thinkers themselves, together with a wider public, abhorred the idea of a vacuum.

In a similar manner people seem to be haunted by some horror of non-existence. If antinatalism would reign, they assume, they would never have begun to exist. And, as a matter of fact, they think this would have been bad for THEM.

On compensation

There’ll be no suffering if you stop procreating.

I readily admit there’s a lot of suffering out there. But then the suffering, pain and fear that people do experience is compensated for by the good things in life they do also experience.

Well, obviously it’s people like you – the defenders of procreation – who find themselves forced to resort to the logics of compensation. It’s you who have to defend your position since you want to change the ethical state of the world by adding more sentient beings. The supreme position is the antinatalists’ position as they don’t want to add sentient beings to the world whose ill-being or well-being we’d have to discuss. This suggests a certain weakness of the pronatalists’ stance.

Emblems of Ethics

Zygotes and early embryos appear to be the emblems of contemporary ethics. As non-sentient and  normally invisible entities they have become telling symbols. While normally invisible zygotes and early embryos are made visible everywhere, normally visible old and sick people are made invisible. But it is them who would deserve to be in the focus of contemporary ethics as they are sentient and, in many cases, suffering.

Newborns are another Emblem of Ethics. In a telling manner Hans Jonas declares the newborn to be the most pitiful being being. According to him newborns do exude a direct ethical appeal which allegedly bridges the hiatus between what there is and what we are to do. Tellingly the same thinker is of the opinion that old people should clear the way for new arrivals.

Systematic and symbolic negligance of the end of life suggests a dimension of unethics within the realm of ethics. At the same time this unjustified negligence serves as a clandestine pronatal device.


When pronatalists turn antinatalist

When pronatalists turn antinatalist

Think of couple A+B. Their outset on life is overall pronatalist. They haven’t procreated yet but plan to have their first child in the foreseeable future. Within five years they plan to have two children.

Now horrible news is coming in: Because of a recently released polluting agent all children produced from today on will suffer unspeakably directly after birth.

Scenario 1

The newborn will suffer incessantly and die a few months after birth.

Scenario 2

The newborn will suffer intermittently and die a few months after birth.

Scenario 3

The newborn will suffer intermittently and die within six decades after birth because of that polluting agent.


Chances are high that couple A+B will refrain from procreation under scenario 1. And probably the vast majority of all pronatal couples would refrain from procreation even under scenario 2.

How about scenario 3? We have good reason to assume that in the face of this scenario many pronatalist people will refrain from procreation on the ground that they do not want to expose their own children to that pollutant agent which with all certainty would cause their deaths. However, six decades is almost a „normal“ life span.

The morals behind these scenarios is as follows:

Pronatalist people seem to be inclined to refrain from procreation if it is the case that they would expose their children to horrible things. Now, virtually all parents are people who have exposed their children to horrible things such as dying and the deaths of the near and the dear. This morals is prone to make pronatalists see that procreation is wrong.


Losing one’s life and winning one’s life

At any given moment most people don’t want to die. While many people fear the process of dying most people do probably fear to lose THEIR lives .

It looks like the fear of LOSING one’s life doesn’t make too much sense. This is so, because I or you will not continue to exist as a person who has lost her life.

In pretty much the same manner – and according to the same illogic – in which many people don’t want to lose THEIR lives most people do welcome that THEY once ‘won’ their lives. A common expression for this is: People are glad that THEY were given the ‘gift’ of life. However, when I began to exist there was no ME who gained the additional feature of life. For this very reason it doesn’t make sense when people try to refute antinatalism on the ground that THEY  and others would have missed out ont he feature of life had their parents not procreated.